On Tuesday, February 11, 1958, the temperature at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota was 15 degrees below zero. I was an electronic countermeasures officer; my crew was making its first flight as a combat-ready crew, with no instructors on board. But I remember the day for a far more significant, and much sadder, reason.
Five other crewmen and I took off in a brand-new B-52D: the pilot, Captain Melvin Rudd; copilot, Captain Verle Rusk; navigator, Captain John O’Connell Jr.; radar bombardier, First Lieutenant Kenneth Kaeppler; gunner, Technical Sergeant Oscar Orrs; and a ground crew member. The mission was about six and a half hours rather than the usual 12 to 16 hours because of a fleet-wide problem in the fuel transfer systems, limiting the fuel available to only that in the wing tanks.
At the time, Strategic Air Command evaluated its units on various criteria, one of which was on-time takeoff. We were on final approach for landing when we got a call from the control tower, telling us that another aircraft, which had less than five minutes to be on time, was waiting to take off. Could we go around? Rudd said okay and advanced the throttles while Rusk raised the landing gear.
We were at about 500 feet and halfway down the runway when two of the inboard engines flamed out. “Get those engines restarted,” Rudd said, and with some difficulty, Rusk did.
Rudd declared an emergency. A series of engine failures and restarts ensued. Rudd tried to keep the aircraft flying and re-enter the landing pattern, and Rusk struggled to keep the engines running. We managed to get back to final approach but could barely maintain flying speed and altitude. The ground control radar operator kept warning us that we were dangerously low. Rudd said that when the stall warning sounded, he would tell Rusk to drop the landing gear.
About a mile and a half short of the airfield, Rudd called, “Gear down.” The airplane stopped flying and hit the ground. I raised my eyes and said, “Your will, not mine.” We rolled over hill and dale toward the perimeter fence and the guard station at the main gate. On the way, an engine pod went through a building that housed radio equipment.
A railroad cut lay between us and the airfield. When the front landing gear went into the cut, the nose hit the far side. The aircraft broke in two at some point, and the tail section ended up at right angles to the rest of the fuselage.
We came to a stop. Neither Rudd nor Rusk could open his overhead escape hatch. I don’t know if the hatches were jammed or the guys didn’t realize how heavy those things are. As for me, first I tried to get up without opening my seat belt. Then I tried to get up without getting out of the parachute harness and survival kit. I stood on the seat and pushed the escape hatch up with difficulty. All I saw was flame.
I headed for the front of the aircraft. On the way, I could see that the lower deck was engulfed in flame, and there was a crack in the floor on the left side, through which I also saw fire. In the meantime, Rusk had gotten his window open and was trying to get out it. Rudd and the ground crewman were following. I didn’t think I had time to wait for them. I went back to my seat, grabbed the end of the escape rope, and pushed the hatch up but not off so it would shield me from the flames. As I went out and let the hatch fall closed, it caught my pants leg. I hung upside down for a moment, and realized that I hadn’t thrown the rope out to slide down on—I still had the end. I made a choice comment and began kicking free of the hatch.
Meanwhile, Orrs had jettisoned the tail turret and took off running, still wearing his parachute. The footprints in the snow went from the turret to the fence and picked up again on the other side; the gate guards caught up to him about a half-mile down the line.
I got loose, and the weight of the hatch dragging on the rope allowed me to slide down without injuring my legs. I was not wearing gloves, so my hands got burned, but at the time I didn’t realize it.
I don’t know how much fuel was left in the wing tanks, but the forward body tank behind my seat had 12,000 pounds of fuel as ballast. It seemed to take the fire crews forever to get to us. I remember crying, and screaming for them to get Kaeppler and O’Connell out. I didn’t know at the time that Kaeppler had been killed when the nose smashed into the railway cut and that O’Connell had died in the flames. Three men doing maintenance work in the building struck by the engine pod had also died.
Rusk managed to get out his window, and Rudd followed head-first and landed on Rusk’s back. The ground crewman could not get his parachute off, and broke either the chest strap or the buckle to get free. He too went out the right window, his parachute dangling behind him by the leg straps.
A medic got me into an ambulance and began to treat my hands. Rusk and I were taken to the hospital; Rusk was kept overnight for observation. I was sedated while each finger was bandaged. It looked like I was wearing very thick gloves.
Three days after the accident, Kenneth Kaeppler was buried at a national cemetery north of Rapid City. I had someone bring me a uniform from my apartment. The shirt sleeves had to be cut from bottom to top so I could get my bandaged hands through. The coat was draped around my shoulders, and my overcoat went over that. It was another bitterly cold day, near 20 below zero. The only thing I remember about the burial was crying when the volleys were fired. My squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kammer, put his arm around my shoulders and held me tight.
On Saturday, when my bandages were changed, the surgeon tried to bend my fingers. He decided that if I was ever to have a chance to use my fingers, they must be fully bent under the bandages: my left thumb was tucked in and the fingers wrapped around it. Then the hand was bandaged. My right hand was also bandaged in a fist, but the thumb was mostly exposed.
I was allowed to go home for the day on Monday. At lunch time, I looked for something to eat. I had cans of soup in the cupboard, but the only can opener I had was the kind you clip to the top of the can and then twist the handle. I fumbled with the opener, which really required two hands to operate. It was painful, but I kept at it until I got the can open and the soup in a pot. It took about 25 minutes, and it was and still is one of my proudest moments. When the bandages came off for good after three and a half weeks, my fingers worked properly.
After a month off to fully heal, I returned to work on a Monday morning. As I was standing in the electronic countermeasures office, Captain Bob Ballard ran in—he was scheduled to fly in a few minutes and his wife had just had a miscarriage. “Give me your stuff and I’ll go for you,” I said. I got a flightsuit, boots, and a helmet out of my locker and met the crew at base operations. We flew a routine mission, during which the pilot, Captain Ivan McFadden, made numerous comments about what a smooth landing he was going to make. When we landed, McFadden allowed the front gear to touch first, which is an automatic ticket to bounding almost uncontrollably down the runway. He was mortified, and kept apologizing over the interphone. I said, “Hell, Mac, that was better than the last landing I had.” He responded, “You must have crashed [pause]…. You son of a bitch, you did crash.”
The next day, I caught hell for making the flight. Since it had been more than six weeks since I had flown, regulations said I was unqualified to fly without an instructor.
Investigators eventually determined that the crash had been caused by fuel icing, a previously unknown condition in which jet fuel absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere, and at low temperatures the water condenses as ice in the fuel lines. On the B-52, three fuel strainers were installed in each engine pod. Only the first and third strainers had bypass valves to compensate for clogging. The second filter had no bypass. The fuel filters recovered from our B-52 were all clogged with ice. Over 200 previous “cause unknown” aircraft losses were then attributed to fuel icing. The immediate fix was to remove the filter element from the second strainer. Some time later, the Air Force installed fuel heaters in the B-52s’ main tanks.